Roadside signs row prompts new approach

COUNCIL chiefs will take a more positive approach to roadside advertising following outcry after recent enforcement action.

Nine Statements of Intent have been drafted by Northumberland County Council, outlining the way the authority will deal with business and community notices.

Planning officials say that while they do not have the power to change the rules on advertising control or designate areas where it can be relaxed, they will do all they can to help people work within the regulations.

And even those who break the rules will escape enforcement action if officers deem that no harm has been caused and there is no public interest in pursuing it.

North Area Development Management Team Manager Peter Rutherford said: “The pressing issue that we need to resolve is to give a more positive statement of intent, rather than being framed in a negative way. It is much better and more helpful to explain to people what they can do and what the tolerances are. We need to be as positive as possible.”

The new approach comes after a review of advertising policies and procedures was ordered by council Chief Executive Steve Stewart following concern about enforcement notices issued to The Country Barn farm shop in Widdrington.

The shop owners had erected professionally designed signs in a field off the A1068 to direct customers to their remote business, but were sent a letter by the council ordering them to remove them or face prosecution.

More than 1,000 customers signed a petition against the move and in August the business was told that it could erect two signs on posts while the review was completed.

Last week progress on the review was presented to the county’s Planning and Environment Committee.

Mr Rutherford said: “It has probably taken a bit longer than originally anticipated, but that is a direct consequence of trying to strike a balance between lots of competing objectives and trying to keep things as simple, but as helpful and positive as possible.

“There does need to be a degree of careful control if we are not to undermine the tourism economy.”

Mr Rutherford said the council’s policy can not be amended until its Core Strategy is updated, but the Statements of Intent could still come into play.

They outline how the authority will deal with signs next to the trunk road network, other A class roads and further afield, advertising of community events, outdoor advertising in towns, enforcement and sponsored advertising on roundabouts.

Underpinning the new approach will be the provision of plain English guides for advertisers and communities about what can be displayed without permission, signage that requires consent and circumstances where notices will not be allowed, which should reduce the need for enforcement.

There will also be “the provision of maximum assistance” in preparing applications for advertising consent.

Committee Chairman Trevor Thorne said: “This is a very necessary piece of work and an important piece of work. We want our signage to be right and to have the right amount. The enforcement bit is also important to have removal of unauthorised signs.

“I like the way this work has been done.

“It has been done in a softly, softly way, rather than a hard-hearted manner.”

Coun John Taylor, of Longhoughton, also welcomed the review.

“It is a difficult subject and you can’t please everybody. I think Peter has done a fair job of getting it right down the middle,” he said.

“Anybody who has been in the States and seen the hoardings on the highways there will know we don’t want that in this county – it would destroy the whole ethos of rurality. But this is fair.

“I think we should accept it and if it has to go to a higher authority for approval I think we should recommend it.”

Members were keen that political posters should also be covered by the regulations and enforcement action taken against those put on public land or property.

Cramlington councillor Wayne Daley said that getting information out about the regulations is vital and suggested a section on the council’s website to explain the rules, along with a Frequently Asked Questions page.

Members were told the review will be presented to the council’s scrutiny committees and Executive Board and will come back to councillors with more detail in the future.

After the meeting, the county’s Conservatives, who called for the rules to be amended to make it easier for businesses to erect signage, welcomed the report.

Group Leader Peter Jackson said: “Since the outrageous situation facing Widdrington Country Barn we have been encouraging the council to take a more business-friendly approach in its planning regulations.

“I am delighted that the council has now seen sense and will be changing the rules to make it easier for local businesses to advertise their goods and services.”